Is Hong Kong a Democratic Country?

Colonial History & Present-Day Politics Complicate the Answer

Rory Boland

Question: Is Hong Kong a democratic country?

This is one of the most common questions asked about Hong Kong, but it rests on a few inaccurate assumptions.

Firstly, Hong Kong isn’t a country, but a special administrative region of China – you can find out more about their unique relationship in this article on the Hong Kong handover from Britain to China.

And second, Hong Kong does have a government that exercises a form of democracy – but one seen to follow a direction dictated by the People’s Republic of China.

Yes, No and Maybe

Yes, Hong Kong has a type of democracy. But it doesn't have universal suffrage, a basic tenet of a democracy.

Hong Kong has its own mini parliament in the form of LEGCO, short for the Legislative Council. Representatives in LEGCO are either elected by direct election or by electoral college.

Those resident in Hong Kong for more than seven years are eligible to vote in direct elections – however, only a third of the council is elected directly. The remaining two-thirds are elected by a 20,000 strong functional constituency made up of businessmen and professionals such as doctors, lawyers, engineers etc.

These groups form into broad parties formed through mutual interests, almost always business related.

Pro-democracy supporters stage a rally in Hong Kong
Lucas Schifres/Getty Images

Beijing Has a Say... and Makes Itself Heard

No Chinese Communist officials exert any de jure power over the LEGCO and its workings. However, a “Pro-Beijing” camp counts many LEGCO representatives among its ranks, giving the ruling Communist Party an indirect say in Hong Kong’s governance. Beijing also reserves the right to interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law to its advantage.

Finally, Beijing influences the selection (and ultimately approves) Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, the head of the government. That means the Chief Executive, currently Carrie Lam, is answerable directly to Beijing.

As the Chief Executive is elected by 800 members drawn from the functional constituency, there are no direct elections for the office.

2007 saw the election for Chief Executive “contested” for the first time. However, because so many of the functional constituency parties receive their marching orders from Beijing, the outcome was already known before the ballots were counted.

However fervently the two candidates debated and campaigned, the result was never in doubt.

Changing Face of Democracy

Great Britain made China commit to keeping basic Western-style freedoms alive in Hong Kong after the turnover. And China has largely kept the promise: Hong Kong citizens enjoy greater freedom of expression, assembly, and religion than their counterparts in the People’s Republic of China.

Beijing reserves the right to manage Hong Kong’s defense and diplomatic relations. A 600-strong garrison of China’s People’s Liberation Army keeps the peace in Hong Kong, but is very careful not to upset local sensitivities about mainland control.

But as the mainland’s cultural and economic power eclipses Hong Kong’s, Beijing may feel less pressure to uphold Hong Kong’s democratic norms. “Hong Kong’s economy relative to China’s gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen from a peak of 27 percent in 1993 to less than 3 percent in 2017,” reports the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

So the question – if Hong Kong is truly democratic – has a time-based element, too. It’s mostly democratic now – but who’s to say the status quo will remain a few years from today?